Friday, June 01, 2007


A recent (rejected) story came back with the pleasing comment that it showed "incredible control." Yes, I thought, that's what I'm aiming for. Yet, then I thought again, I write because I want some kind of freedom - not knowing where the narrative is going or what it might churn up. Which is it I want then? Control or Freedom? Is it even a choice or an either/or? I can see that Hemingway's stories or Joyce's "The Dead" or "The Great Gatsby" are remarkably controlled, but what of longer pieces? Its the glorious freedom of the language that makes me love "Tender is the Night" whilst I admire "The Great Gatsby." I remember a James Wood essay where he compared the control of (a better) Bellow with the flabby freedom of (a worse) Amis. Yet, his own novel, one would guess suffered from over-control, not enough freedom. Its freedom that I liked in "White Teeth" despite its faults - and yet "Life of Pi", essentially a fable, was baggy with freedom, to its detriment. What is it then? Control implies that the writer knows exactly what they are doing - freedom that they are doing anything they're capable of. Would I rather be someone who exceeds expectations - and talent - but risks falling on my face? or someone who controls every nuance, but fails to let the work breathe. I'd say control makes a good story, and freedom a good novel - but its not that simple - perhaps its that in a novel, a paragraph or a chapter can have as much freedom as you like, but without control, the novel can and will despair the reader. The same writer can do both - Amis is superbly controlled in "Night Train" or "Time's Arrow", yet his preferable writing is the freedom of "Money" and "London Fields." (If I recall, that Woods criticism was about his least successful novel, "The Information".) The best writing will do both - fitting the strategy to the flow of the race - which means control in the sprint of a short story, and periods of both in a marathon like large novel. I've been puzzling about this, and thinking that yes, maybe the answer to this question is important to me...

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